Friday, September 4, 2015

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, released by 20th Century-Fox in 1939, was the third of the Charlie Chan movies starring Sidney Toler who took over the rĂ´le after the death of Warner Oland. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is usually regarded as being one of the very best of the Chan movies, an opinion I share.

The movie opens on board the famous China Clipper flying boat and any movie that features flying boats has won me over right away. Charlie Chan and Number Two Son Jimmy Chan are flying from Honolulu to San Francisco. Also on board is Charlie’s old friend Paul Essex, a well-known mystery writer. Essex is destined never to reach San Francisco alive.

Essex’s death is initially attributed to heart failure but Charlie’s suspicions are aroused by a mysterious cablegram Essex received shortly before his death. Charlie is sufficiently concerned to put pressure on another old friend, Deputy Police Chief J.J. Kilvaine, to request an autopsy. The autopsy does not prove murder but it certainly points to murder as a possibility.

The cablegram made enigmatic references to the Zodiac. In San Francisco Charlie makes the acquaintance of successful stage magician the Great Rhadini (Cesar Romero) who is an enthusiastic debunker of phony psychics. As it happens Rhadini is particularly keen to expose a psychic known as Dr Zodiac. It seems to Charlie that the Zodiac connection might well be very significant indeed. Dr Zodiac has a large number of clients and this number includes Eve Cairo (Pauline Moore), a mind reader protege of Rhadini’s.

Charlie is sure that Paul Essex’s death was linked to a gigantic criminal operation involving fake psychics and blackmail but getting the evidence to prove his theory won’t be so easy.

This movie benefits from a good supporting cast with the standout performer being Cesar Romero as the extravagant and charming Rhadini. 

In my view Sidney Toler was a very worthy successor to Warner Oland and as much as I love Oland’s performances as Charlie Chan I think I slightly prefer Toler who gives Chan a bit more of an edge. Victor Sen Yung not only manages not to be irritating as Jimmy Chan, he’s actually likeable and reasonably amusing without pushing the comic elements too far. He is basically a comic relief character but he’s not allowed to overwhelm the film. In fact in general the comedy elements here are rather downplayed by the standards of Hollywood B-movies of this era, and to me that seems to be a very good thing indeed. What’s even more pleasing is that the comic relief moments that are there are actually funny.

One of the greatest things about the old studio system was that it allowed the studios to make B-pictures on modest budgets but with very high production values. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is a fine example. It never looks cheap or shoddy. The importance of stage illusions and psychic phenomena require some fairly ambitious (by B-picture standards) visual set-pieces and they don’t disappoint.

Norman Foster directed many of the Mr Moto and Charlie Chan movies for Fox and always did a fine job. He does particularly well here. The theatre scenes involving stage magic are very skillfully executed. Foster is a very underrated director who added a definite sense of style and atmosphere to his B-pictures. 

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is one of four films in the Fox’s Charlie Chan Volume 4 boxed set. The transfer is excellent and there are a host of extras. Not many B-pictures are treated with this much respect when it comes to DVD releases and Fox are to be commended for giving this movie the luxury treatment.

I can’t really find any significant flaw in this movie. It has a decent mystery plot set against an interesting background (the 1939 World Exposition on San Francisco's Treasure Island) and fine acting, it’s well-crafted and looks good and it’s fun. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island really is terrific entertainment. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Hannibal (1959)

I've posted a review of Edgar G. Ulmer's fascinating biopic Hannibal (1959) over at my Cult Movie Reviews blog. It's a movie that is well worth a watch if you're an Ulmer fan or you enjoy historical epics, sword and sandal movies and the movies of Victor Mature.

Here's the link to my review.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Deadly Record (1959)

Deadly Record is a modest unassuming low-budget British mystery dating from 1959. Some good performances are enough to make it worth a look.

Trevor Hamilton (Lee Patterson) is an airline pilot who arrives home to find his wife Jenny is not there. That’s nothing surprising. She isn’t home very often. Their marriage is pretty much a marriage in name only - as he remarks, they lead separate lives. In fact she lives in her studio at the back of her house. She was a dancer before her marriage and her one ambition is to return to the stage. Trevor is unconcerned by her absence, takes a sleeping tablet and goes to bed. In the morning he is awoken by a police constable investigating a minor traffic accident in which Jenny had been involved. The constable insists on looking around and much to Trevor’s surprise and consternation he discovers Jenny’s dead body in the studio. She has been murdered.

It’s never been much of a secret that the Hamiltons were not exactly a shining example of wedded bliss, so it’s natural enough for Superintendent Ambrose (Geoffrey Keen playing yet another role as a policeman) to consider Trevor to be the prime suspect.

Trevor’s problem is that although the evidence against him is purely circumstantial and not very strong he has no alibi and the lack of any other suspects is a definite worry. He thinks it might be a good idea to start doing a bit of investigating on his own.

He has one ally, in the person of his friend Susan (Barbara Shelley). It’s fairly obvious that there is some kind of emotional attachment between the two of them, which naturally tends to make Superintendent Ambrose even more suspicious. Trevor already knew that there were quite a few men in his wife’s life and he’s sure that one of them killed her but what he needs to do is to find some evidence.

He does find some evidence but it’s inconclusive and it’s clear that the police are more and more convinced that they already have their killer and they’re not especially interested in any other suspects. It would help if Trevor and Susan could find Jenny’s diary but it seems to have disappeared. Sooner or later time is going to run out and Superintendent Ambrose is going to arrest Trevor and while the case against him is not overwhelming it could be enough to get a conviction.

This is a fairly standard whodunit plot but it’s quite competently executed. Director Lawrence Huntington spent his whole career churning out unremarkable B-features but he does a solid enough job and there are a few quite atmospheric scenes. The low budget is evident in the limited number of sets but the production manages to avoid looking shoddy.

Lee Patterson was a Canadian-born actor who became a reliable B-movie leading man in British movies of the 50s before gaining some degree of fame as one of the stars of the American private eye TV series Surfside 6. He does well here being sympathetic without resorting to self-pity. Barbara Shelley makes a fine leading lady (as always). Playing a copper was no great challenge to Geoffrey Keen but he was a professional and he really did look exactly like the popular image of a 1950s British police detective. Peter Dyneley (best remembered as the voice of Jeff Tracy in the Thunderbirds TV series) is quite impressive as a very not ethical doctor.

The resolution of the plot is quite convincing and believable (which of course is not always the case with mystery movies). There are sufficient red herrings to keep things interesting and the pacing is satisfactorily taut (the very short 58-minute running time certainly helps)

Network’s DVD presentation is barebones but it does offer an excellent anamorphic transfer. The black-and-white cinematography looks quite impressive and suitably moody.

There’s nothing particularly outstanding about this movie but it does what it sets out to do quite effectively and the fine performances by the two leads are major pluses. It’s good low-key entertainment. Recommended.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

some reviews from my Cult Movies blog

Some reviews from my Cult Movies blog that might interest readers here:

The Magician (1926), a black magic melodrama based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel which in turn was inspired by the exploits of Aleister Crowley.

Our Man in Marrakesh (1966), an amusing spy spoof starring Tony Randall and Terry-Thomas.

Breakheart Pass (1975), an excellent murder mystery/thriller/western set on a train in the Wild West.

Innocent Bystanders (1972), quite decent spy thriller starring Stanley Baker.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Cottage To Let (1941)

Cottage To Let is a light-hearted 1941 British spy thriller. It’s really as much a spoof as a genuine spy thriller although it does boast a pretty decent and rather complicated plot, and a very very strong cast.

John Barrington (Leslie Banks) is an eccentric who just happens to be vital to the British war effort. He hates bureaucrats and he insists in carrying on his researches at his home in the Scottish Highlands. That home, usually a haven of peace among the lochs, has been thrown into chaos. Barrington’s wife (Jeanne de Casalis) is in her own way just as eccentric as her husband. Eager to help the war effort she has put a cottage at the disposal of the Army for use as a military hospital. Unfortunately she has also agreed to let the cottager be used to house children evacuated from London. And at the same time she has let the cottage to a Mr Dimble (Alistair Sim). It’s now a very overcrowded cottage indeed.

As a hospital the cottage has only a single patient, Flight-Lieutenant Perry (John Mills), a Spitfire pilot whose aircraft had been forced down in the loch. Not surprisingly there are soon signs of budding romance between the glamorous fighter pilot hero and Dr Barrington’s beautiful daughter Helen (Carla Lehmann). That’s not entirely to the liking of Dr Barrington’s assistant Trently (Michael Wilding).

Meanwhile the young evacuee Ronald (16-year-old George Cole at the beginning of an incredibly long career which happily continues to this day) is creating a certain amount of havoc. He’s a good-natured lad but high-spirited and being a Sherlock Holmes fan he fancies himself as an amateur detective which tends to cause more chaos.

Among this motley assortment of misfits there is at least one German spy. And at least one  British counter-spy. Scotland Yard knows the Germans will stop at nothing to steal Dr Barrington’s latest invention but Barrington is not the sort of man who takes kindly to having policemen snooping about the place, even if they are trying to protect him. This means the Yard’s efforts to protect him have to be secret - Dr Barrington has no idea of the identity of the British counter-spy, and of course neither does the audience.

To make things more confusing just about everybody seems to be behaving suspiciously. Which of course adds to the movie’s fun.

This is not really an action-oriented spy drama although it does have a few action scenes towards the end.

Anthony Asquith had a long and quite distinguished career as a director. His approach is straightforward but effective. The challenge with this type of movie is to balance the comedy and suspense elements and this is done quite successfully. The plot has enough twists to keep us interested while the humour is sufficiently well done to keep us amused.

It’s difficult to single out any one performance. This is an ensemble piece and everyone does a fine job. Fans of Alistair Sim will certainly be happy. Child characters are always a potential problem, especially when they’re precocious and high-spirited with delusions of being Sherlock Holmes, but George Cole is really quite delightful. He gets plenty of laughs and he’s never irritating. The humour in this movie is consistently good-natured and steers well clear of slapstick. 

Since it’s important to keep the identity of the spy or spies a secret for as long as possible the actors have to avoid making these characters into stereotypical dastardly spy villains. This proves to be a good move. It also gives the movie less of a wartime propaganda movie feel than you might expect. 

The one minor quibble is that a certain member of the cast does overdo things a little in his climactic scene when his treachery is revealed.

Cottage To Let was released in the US under the accurate but rather dull title Bombsight Stolen.

Network have as usual done a very good job with their DVD. Picture and sound quality are both very acceptable.

Cottage To Let is fine lightweight entertainment. If you’re a spy fan, a mystery fan or a devotee of British comedies you should enjoy it. In fact any classic movie fan should really enjoy this one. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 17, 2015

School for Scoundrels (1960)

The wickedly witty 1960 British comedy film School for Scoundrels (subtitled How to Win Without Actually Cheating) is, interestingly enough, based on a series of non-fiction self-help books. 

Stephen Potter had enjoyed great success with these books, beginning in 1947 with Gamesmanship and continuing with One-Upmanship, Lifemanship and Supermanship. The idea behind them was to point out how to gain an unfair advantage in almost any situation without having to do anything that was technically illegal or against the rules. Although the intention behind the books was humorous they contained some extraordinarily penetrating insights into the ways in which some people almost invariably win while others almost invariably lose. Peter Ustinov had the idea of turning the ideas in the books into a comedy film and produced the first version of the screenplay although he does not receive a screen credit.

Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) most definitely belongs to the category of life’s losers. On the surface he has everything going for him. He’s wealthy, he owns his own company, he’s not bad looking and he’s a thoroughly decent chap. That’s the problem. Being a decent chap he is inclined to take the path of least resistance and as a result he lets people walk all over him. He is also chronically short of self-confidence. Things come to a head when he meets a lovely young woman, April Smith (Janette Scott), and falls hopelessly in love with her. Everything seems to be going fine until a dirty rotter named Raymond Delaunay (Terry-Thomas) arrives on the scene. Delaunay has boundless self-confidence and an instinctive knack for the techniques that make for winning.

Henry endures a string of humiliations until finally he determines to take drastic action. He enrolls in the College of Lifemanship run by a certain Stephen Potter (played by Alistair Sim). At the college he learns to apply the kinds of techniques that Delaunay uses instinctively but he learns to employ them in a scientific and systematic way. While Delaunay is  a mere amateur Henry becomes a skilled professional in the art of lifemanship, and amateurs are no match for professionals. Henry is soon turning the tables on Delaunay, and on everyone else who has humiliated him.

For Henry the object of the exercise is to win the hand of the fair April but while he now seems destined to do this he must face a personal dilemma - is it worth winning such a prize by unfair means?

School for Scoundrels has many things going for it, not the least of these being the presence of three of the greatest of all British comic actors in the three central roles. Ian Carmichael was always good at playing nice guys who are rather put-upon but he also had the ability to give his performances a bit of an edge when needed and he is thus equally adept at playing the hapless loser Henry of the first half of the movie and the smooth winner who graduates with a degree in lifemanship. Terry-Thomas is as usual a superb cad. Alistair Sim has great fun as the cynical Potter. And all three are in superlative form, so good that it would be impossible to choose favourites. As a bonus we get equally delightful performances by Dennis Price and Peter Jones, formidable comic talents themselves, as two oily used car salesmen. 

The script takes full advantage of the opportunities for cynical comedy. Cynical perhaps, but very very funny.

What made Potter’s books so immensely popular, and what makes the film so successful, is that the dastardly techniques of gamesmanship and lifemanship really do work. In fact Potter’s work has had considerable influence on psychologists. The books may have been intended humorously but they can be used as instruction manuals in how to become an unscrupulous winner. This is humour, but humour with a sometimes disturbing edge. It’s impossible not to rejoice as Henry Palfrey takes his revenge on those who have injured him while at the same time we can’t help feeling a tiny bit uncomfortable at the unalloyed joy he gets from doing unto others as they have done unto him. In fact even though Raymond Delaunay is a cad and a rotter we feel slightly sorry for him as he finds himself outgunned by Henry’s armoury of dirty tricks.

The Region 4 DVD from Madman (part of their Ealing Comedy Collection although this is not an Ealing film) is barebones but offers an excellent anamorphic transfer. There have been several DVD releases of this movie, some of which are anamorphic and some of which are inferior pan-and-scanned transfers, so it pays to check before you buy.

School for Scoundrels is splendid British comedy and a glorious opportunity to see some of Britain’s finest comic talents at the top of their game. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Gambit (1966)

Heist movies were insanely popular during the 1960s and Gambit is not only a fine example of the breed it also adds a few distinctive touches of its own.

In 1966 Shirley MacLaine was a very big star, big enough to be given the final choice of leading man for her films. In this instance Michael Caine turned out to be absolutely the ideal choice.

Caine plays Harry Dean, an English crook with very grandiose ambitions indeed. He has a plan, which he has no doubt is fool-proof, to rob the world’s richest man. Shahbandar (Herbert Lom) is an Arab oil billionaire with a fabulous art collection and Harry has set his sights on the most valuable of all Shahbandar’s artworks, a two thousand year old Chinese statue. The statue happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to the billionaire’s deceased wife and Harry thinks he can make use of this. All he needs to do is to find a girl who looks like the statue. He finds her in the person of Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine,) a small-time Eurasian dancer in a seedy bar in Hong Kong.

Harry thinks he has done his homework very thoroughly but in fact he’s made a few seriously dubious assumptions. Nonetheless the plan seems workable enough and he persuades Nicole to pay along. He persuades her by not telling her anything about the plan apart from the part she will have to play. This proves to be another slight misjudgment on Harry’s part. Nicole is not the sort of girl who likes to be deceived.

The essential framework for the heist movie is that there has to be a superbly ingenious plan that cannot possibly fail but of course in practice it doesn’t go quite so smoothly. Gambit follows this formula but with a few original twists. Unfortunately even to hint at the nature of those twists would ruin part of the enjoyment of the film so I’ll say as little as possible about the plot.

A heist movie needs more than a clever plot. It needs at least one charismatic star (two is even better), it needs sparkling dialogue, it needs to be visually impressive and ideally it needs generous side-orders of humour and romance. Gambit has all of these and they’re combined perfectly.

Ronald Neame directed. Neame doesn’t always get the attention he deserves. He made some fascinating movies in just about every genre and he demonstrates a natural flair for the heist movie. Gambit was nominated for three Oscars including best Art Direction and Best Costumes. It does indeed look terrific and Shirley MacLaine’s dresses are fabulous. Despite the exotic settings it was shot entirely in California (mostly on the backlot), with Santa Barbara standing in for the Riviera.

While MacLaine and Caine get top billing Herbert Lom’s character is every bit as important and he gets as much screen time as the two stars. This is a three-handed game and McLaine, Caine and Lom are all in scintillating form. 

While Harry is definitely a wrong ’un he’s a nice guy, and Shahbandar is a pretty nice guy as well. That makes the battle of wits between them rather interesting - we don’t really want either of them to lose. In fact we’d like to see all three of the main characters win.

Shirley MacLaine figures prominently in the action right from the start but for the first half hour she doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. This was apparently her own idea and it’s a very good one (and one that the director embraced enthusiastically). To reveal why it’s such a good idea would be to risk a spoiler - one very intriguing feature of this movie is that the really clever plot twist comes at the beginning rather than the end.

Director Ronald Neame recorded the audio commentary for the DVD shortly before his death at the age of 99 but he still remembered a good deal about the making of the film. Although at times he wanders off on tangents he has plenty of interesting anecdotes about his long and exceptionally interesting career.

This is the kind of light-hearted romp that movie-makers just don’t seem to have the style or the lightness of touch to pull off any more. In the 60s though they did know how to do this sort of thing, and do it supremely well. Gambit is witty, clever, stylish, romantic, amusing and exciting. It’s pure entertainment of the highest order. Highly recommended.